Justices downplay Covid mask rift at US Supreme Court
US Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch has declined to wear a face mask during recent court hearings Erin Schaff POOL/AFP/File

Two US Supreme Court justices on Wednesday dismissed a report of a rift at the nation's highest court over the wearing of Covid face masks.'

National Public Radio (NPR), citing court sources, reported on Tuesday that Chief Justice John Roberts had asked the other eight justices to wear masks during oral arguments.

Justice Neil Gorsuch has appeared in court without a mask, however, while Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who has diabetes and sits next to Gorsuch on the bench, has attended recent hearings virtually, from her chambers.

In a rare joint statement on Wednesday, Gorsuch and Sotomayor said "reporting that Justice Sotomayor asked Justice Gorsuch to wear a mask surprised us.

"It is false," the statement said. "While we may sometimes disagree about the law, we are warm colleagues and friends."

The NPR report did not actually say that Sotomayor had asked Gorsuch to wear a mask. It said that Roberts, the chief justice, understanding that Sotomayor did not feel safe, had "in some form asked the other justices to mask up."

The US Supreme Court prides itself on the civility of its justices towards one another despite their often fierce legal disagreements.

Gorsuch, 54, is a staunch conservative, one of three justices nominated by former president Donald Trump.

The 67-year-old Sotomayor is one of the three liberal justices on the court.

Mask-wearing has become a partisan battlefield in the United States, with some on the right condemning it as an abuse of individual liberties.

So have Covid vaccinations become a dividing subject, and Gorsuch joined the five other conservatives on the court last week in striking down President Joe Biden's mandatory Covid shots or testing regime for large businesses.

Sotomayor and the two other liberal justices voted in favor of the vaccination-or-testing mandate.

Following the coronavirus outbreak in March 2020, the Supreme Court began holding its hearings by telephone, with the justices, all of whom have since been vaccinated and boosted, working from home.

The court resumed in person hearings in October.